Last Orders! By Trevor Plumbly
The 1960s were the beginning of the end as far as the traditional pub was concerned. The beat generation demanded novelty and noise; this was quickly provided by franchise chains and disco bars, which left the poor old dedicated drinker out in the cold. Depending where you stood in the social scale it was ‘the boozer’, ‘the pub’ or ‘the local’. For non-locals, they had names that totally belied the ambience and clientèle within. Only an innocent tourist would expect to meet any of the peerage in ‘The King’s Arms’ or find any reference to wildlife inside ‘The White Bear’ or ‘The Red Lion’. The King’s Arms probably supplied refreshment for a passing monarch in bygone days and received the royal warrant in exchange. Any reference to coats of arms suggests a connection, possibly a tenancy, with local nobility, but the origins of the more exotic names remain debatable.
The importance of the ‘public house’ or ‘pub’ in village or town life in the past is little appreciated these days. In a small village, depending on the population, there would have been one or two pubs and in larger towns one on virtually every other corner. There were of course gin palaces in the slums and dock areas, but the local pubs were as essential a part of the community as the local church, in fact the publican was probably more in touch with the day-to-day affairs of the locals than the vicar. Pubs had an inbuilt class system for patrons: the ‘saloon bar’ catered for the businessmen, middle class residents and their ladies; the ‘public bar’ was mainly for the workers and, on occasions, their womenfolk; the ‘snug’ or ‘private bar’ was basically a private club room where unaccompanied women could drink and gossip discreetly. Casual patrons weren’t welcomed in there and were simply frozen out by the occupants, the publican’s missus, or the barmaid. There was a strict pecking order behind the bar: the publican or ‘guvnor’ was expected to be an all-round presence in the saloon and the public bar; however, the snug was mainly off limits, presumably a male presence would have inhibited the ladies’ conversations. The missus was expected to be on show in the saloon and was regarded as ‘one of the girls’ in the snug, but rarely served in the public bar; male banter was probably considered too coarse for her sensitivity. The barmaid, on the other hand, had a sort of roving commission, allowing her to serve in all three bars.
Regular patrons expected certain standards from the folk behind the bar or they simply moved on, often causing a domino effect which it could take a change of landlord to reverse. The ‘guvnor’ was expected to socialise and comment on a wide range of topics in the saloon, while the ability to tell a borderline joke was certainly a plus in the public. Dress and drinks were important too: an old school tie and a gin and tonic in the public would set you apart from the lads, as would work jeans and a pint in the saloon. The missus was generally the ‘queen bee’ and was quite happy to play the part! Her social forays were limited to the saloon bar: perfectly coiffed and tastefully dressed, with just enough jewellery to impress, she held court over the ladies while the gents propped up the bar.
Whilst the missus and the guvnor played their roles like stars, the barmaid was by far the most influential figure, not bound by the unwritten laws and social niceties of the various bars. First names, or ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ with a surname, were rarely bestowed, the vast majority were simply ‘luv’. In these days of employee protection, her job requirements would just about defy description, but I’ll have a shot. Age: over 20 but not over 40. Hair colour: preferably blonde but redheads may apply. Build: buxom, thin or overweight ladies need not apply. Dress: heavy make-up and low necklines are required at all times. Demeanour: must be able to smile while being constantly exposed to ribald remarks and propositions and the ability to flirt will be considered an advantage. Health: ladies with odd complaints like the occasional headache, toothache, sore feet or tired legs need not apply. Personality: the ability to agree with all and sundry is essential, ladies with a mind of their own will not be considered. With all these talents, good barmaids were treasured by the management and patrons, and if Sharon moved to the rival establishment, you could guarantee she would take her loyal regulars with her.
The peculiar thing about this almost feudal system was that it actually worked! Habitual drunkenness was rare, there were arguments but they very rarely came to blows. The regulars regarded it as their pub and policed it as such. The maximum penalty for repeated anti-social behaviour was the landlord’s ban. This reduced the culprit to almost leper status. In a small town or village, word travelled fast and if you were barred from ‘The Red Lion’ you certainly weren’t made to feel welcome at ‘The King’s Arms’.
By the late 1970s, the larger breweries began managing pubs rather than simply leasing and supplying them. The old style ‘local’ landlords were replaced with managers more interested in company policies than community involvement. Barmaids were replaced by de facto waitresses and in some cases even the décor was standardised within the chain, turning a lot of interesting locals into virtual Starbucks. Microwaved tapas and loud music replaced chips and banter; the pub as a community institution slowly became just a place to drink. ‘Last orders gentlemen please!’ indicated the approach of closing time then. But looking back I can’t help thinking it could have been a warning.